Being an American Jew at Christmas-time is not easy. With all due respect to those who celebrate Christmas, for those of us who do not, the flood of Christmas-themed advertisements, commercials, movies, TV specials and incessant Christmas muzak can be pretty overwhelming.
To make matters worse, I have in-laws who partake in Christmas in a BIG way. My husband converted to Judaism before we got married. He grew up celebrating an “American” Church-less, Jesus-less, religion-less version of Christmas: a decorated tree, a big dinner, and watching football and parades on TV while munching on crackers and those weird cheese balls that have been rolled in chopped pecans. (I could never pass as a gentile–those cheese balls freak me out.)
My husband’s parents have been divorced for about 15 years, and my Mormon-raised mother-in-law gave up Christmas in bits and pieces over the years, eliminating it completely once she decided to convert to Judaism three years ago (that’s a whole other story!). My Baptist-bred father-in-law and his current wife celebrate Christmas enthusiastically in a non-religious way, much as my husband was raised celebrating it. Their home is decorated top to bottom with hundreds of pretty twinkling lights, an impressive collection of Santa snow globes and ornaments brought out of storage for the month of December, awesome blinking Star Trek ornaments adorning a gorgeous, fragrant tree, and hand bedazzled Christmas tablecloths and napkins.
I am tickled to admit I even once saw Santa Claus toilet paper in their guest bathroom during the holidays.
I will not lie and tell you that it was initially easy to celebrate their holiday with them. I was unfamiliar with the customs of Christmas. I call December 24 “erev Christmas” for my own clarity. I did not grow up in a family that showered me with gifts for the holidays, and the extensive gift-giving that goes on at my in-laws’ initially startled me. I felt like the most Jewishy Jew on the planet those first years at my in-laws’. Think Woody Allen imagining himself as the Hasid in “Annie Hall.” I felt like that.
Once my husband and I had children, my in-laws were thrilled and excited to buy our boys gifts at Christmas time. Of course, they love the presents they get, but I initially worried that they would see Christmas as “better” than Hanukkah and thus, ultimately lead to their rejection of Judaism (and me). I also worried that my in-laws would see me as ungrateful or as a “Scrooge” if I asked them to tone down the gift-giving.
My husband and I struggled with the gift issue ad nauseum: should we give them gifts for their holiday or ours? What wrapping paper does one choose?! My husband decided that the spirit of the holidays should be the giving, so he holds that we give his father Hanukkah gifts in Hanukkah wrapping to show the spirit of our holiday, and accept their Christmas gifts in Christmas wrapping with no reciprocation, since it’s their holiday.
I don’t know that I am entirely comfortable with this arrangement, especially since Hanukkah floats about the calendar erratically, sometimes causing me to send gifts by mail at the end of November or even after Christmas, despite the fact that we travel to see them at Christmas time and it would save me postage to just give them their darn gifts then!
A lot of my early anxiety I can now identify as protective paranoia, and I have found that presenting Judaism to our children is enjoyable, rewarding, and effortless, even in the face of tempting things like lots of presents. There are Jews who observe Christmas without the religious aspects it was designed to honor, and if it works for them, that’s fine. For us, what works is consistently emphasizing our ethnic and religious identity as different from those who celebrate Christmas, even if those people happen to be your grandparents. What we tell our older son is that Grandma and Grandpa celebrate Christmas but we don’t. Period. We don’t say that they are wrong, or that we are right, we just say that this is how it is in our family.
For now, our son loves getting presents at Christmas, but he loves it in the context of Grandma and Grandpa’s house. He does not identify as celebrating Christmas and I am telling you now: he will tell your child that Santa isn’t real, so keep clear of him if you hold that myth dear to your heart.
What works for us is being honest with our boys, being engaged in the lives of all of our family as much as we can be, and being ultimately grateful for the abundance of love and affection that we are blessed to have, especially in a nation and a world where many go without fresh water, food, or shelter, much less an intact home with healthy caregivers.
Our family is not Rockwellian, and it’s not picture perfect, but it’s ours. This is our boys’ heritage – all of it: the Southern Baptist part, the Mormon part, and the part that still has one foot stuck in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and on the boats that brought my Grandparents across the ocean to a place of struggle, success, and yes, Christmas.
America holds the promise of so much: so much excess, so much confusion, and so much mixing of people and their identities. The identities, though, do not melt as in a pot; rather, they are tossed together in a joyous raucousness, each part wholly distinguishable from the next, but together creating a medley that is unique and surprising and beautiful in its complexity.
Happy holidays from our mixed up family to yours.